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Publicity plays role on Muhammad jury

Sniper shootings coverage
One by one, they walk down the aisle, some 300 prospective jurors, stealing glances around the nearly empty courtroom, before their eyes flash on the man for whom they are here.

He is John Allen Muhammad, who faces six counts of murder in Montgomery County arising from the Washington-area sniper rampage in 2002. And nearly every one of the summoned county residents knows that he was convicted of a sniper shooting in Virginia in 2003.

Prospective juror Andrew Truszkowski of Germantown said it felt "creepy" sitting across from Muhammad, who is on Virginia's death row.

"He's a cold-blooded killer. It's just hard," he said, having been excused from further consideration after telling the judge he had already formed an unshakable opinion.

Another prospective juror who declined to give his name said: "Hideous. I couldn't even look at him because of what he's done."

In a three-day parade of potential jurors, Judge James F. Ryan has found virtually no one unaware of the sniper shootings and few who had not already decided that Muhammad is guilty.

That makes the possibility of seating an unbiased jury "slim to none," said one of Muhammad's standby defense lawyers. When pressed by the judge telling them this is a different case, some potential jurors say they can be impartial.

Muhammad, who is acting as his own lawyer, has repeatedly complained to the judge that people have "preconceived notions" about him.

Rising from his seat, the 6-foot-1-inch, reed-thin defendant has told the judge that prospective jurors whose minds have been made up for nearly four years cannot honestly set that aside and - "shazam" - decide his innocence or guilt based solely on what they hear in court.

When questioned, Mary Dimsey told Ryan that Muhammad was "a filthy murderer. He deserves to die."

The judge asked her to leave.

Outside the courtroom, Dimsey repeated her contempt for Muhammad, calling him a "disgusting piece of garbage." She said the trial was "a farce" and "a waste of money."

"He's already been sentenced," she said. "He does not deserve a trial."

J. Wyndal Gordon, one of Muhammad's three standby lawyers, said: "It's very disturbing, the venomous hatred from some people."

This week, Muhammad complained that the jury pool was tainted, not only because of people who decided he is guilty, but because at least two potential jurors told Ryan that those waiting to be questioned are gabbing about him, his guilt, the case and their fears in 2002.

"We really feel that the whole pool is tainted," said Russell J. Neverdon, another of the three standby defense lawyers, noting that several lawyers and a pastor - "people trained to be nonjudgmental" - were excused after saying their minds were closed.

"The presumption of innocence is flipped the other way in my mind," said one potential juror, a former prosecutor.

Unlike many other defendants who come to trial, Muhammad is well-known.

Since he and teenager Lee Boyd Malvo were arrested Oct. 24, 2002, Muhammad's photograph has regularly appeared in newspapers and on television. (Malvo is serving life sentences for two fatal Virginia sniper shootings.)

In ordinary cases, prospective jurors do not know of the defendant's earlier sentence and do not recognize him.

In Muhammad's case, neither is true, which can lead to the kind of reaction he is getting, said Scott Sundby, a Washington and Lee University law professor who has studied juries.

"They know that one group of jurors decided he should have the death penalty," he said.

Only one potential juror was excused for bias against prosecutors. An older woman, she could not forgive the court for causing her to forfeit tickets to a Red Sox-Yankees game so that she would be in town for juror questioning. "I'd probably hold it against the prosecution," she said.

Today, a panel of 12 jurors and four alternates will be chosen from the winnowed-down pool of 80 people who made the first cut. Opening statements are to follow in the afternoon.